I love shooting panoramas. There is something very appealing in that wide aspect ratio that speaks to me. Maybe it is because I work in VFX industry and of course all cinematic aspect ratios are wide and I might be influenced by that to the certain degree. Without going into this topic too deep let me just say that for proper panoramic shoot you need a specialized tripod head that corrects for parallax shift. Martin Bailey has a great in depth article on his website about this topic. You can learn about the nodal heads, how to set it up properly and all the theory behind. Martin did a great job I do recommend you read that article. If you don't have special nodal head like myself, keep reading. For most of the cases it is not absolutely necessary while you can still get acceptable results shooting just handheld. That is what I did on all of panoramic images on this website.
There are number of reasons why you would shoot a panoramic image. You might not have wide enough lens to capture the scene you envisioned. Perhaps you are not able to move around due to the terrain to change the composition. Perhaps you want to create high resolution image but your camera just doesn't have sufficient megapixel count. Or you are not happy with wide angle look that wide angle lens gives you where all the subjects in the scene appear too small and pushed back. Maybe you like the wide "cinematic" aspect ratios as I do. All these reasons are valid.
There are few ways how to go about panoramic pictures. In days of film there were specialized cameras or panoramas were made by cropping during printing process. These days the most common way is to shoot series of images and stitch them together later in Photoshop or other specialized software.
As I mentioned earlier, proper way to shoot panoramas would require tripod and special panoramic (nodal) head with rotates the camera around nodal point. This will get rid of parallax shifting between foreground and background objects as the camera pans across the scene. Such a tripod head can be an investment and if you don't shoot panoramas professionally, for most of us this is an investment that is hard to justify. I sometimes do a long high altitude trips as well and in this instance the weight might be an issue as every pound counts. Also, while tripod is good to have, it is not absolutely necessary. It is not too difficult to do if we keep couple of important points in mind.
Let's talk about subject first. Since we are shooting handheld, it will be impossible to find the nodal point at first place let alone rotate the camera around it accurately. The parallax problem will inevitably occur. For this reason the best results are achieved when there is no strong foreground elements in the image. Although stitching algorithms are quite advanced these days, in some extreme cases the results can be not desirable resulting in improper blending, stretching and distortion of the final image.
When it comes to lens choices, it is best to stay away from wide angle lenses. They have way too much distortion towards the edge of the frame which makes it for software harder to make the stitch. Also resulting panorama can be very distorted and general unusable. Better results can be achieved with focal lengths from 35mm up on full frame cameras, 23mm on crop sensor cameras or 18mm on Micro Four Thirds cameras. Generally I got very good results with 50mm focal length. Zoom or prime lens doesn't make difference. Only with zooms we have to be really careful not to change the zoom in the midst of sequence. It has to stay constant throughout the shoot.
The camera settings
Now little bit about camera settings. The most important thing is to set everything to manual. So obviously your camera has to support full manual mode. All cameras these days usually do. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance. We set everything in manual If you don't do or forget this the you will get inconsistent colors, exposure values, ISO on different frames. Again it might be impossible for software to correct for it and make a successful stitch. If you are uncomfortable with manual settings use something like aperture priority. Inspect the scene with your camera and note the readings that your viewfinder shows you. I tend to point the camera to the most important subject and make sure that it will be exposed properly. I take a mental note about readings. Then I set my camera to manual mode and dial in all the settings that camera showed me in aperture priority mode. Next step is the focus. It has to be set to manual otherwise you get focus shift between the shots. If your subject is far enough it can be considered as on one focal plane, just focus on that. If you have some elements that are closer and further from your camera, focus at roughly 1/3 into the scene. If unsure, make a test shot just for the main subject and check on the back of your camera if everything you want in focus is actually in focus. If your eyes are not as sharp (like mine), use auto-focus and once acquired, switch it to manual. On camera as well as on lens.
Shooting technique is quite simple. First of all, I advise to shoot in portrait mode. This way a higher resolution can be achieved while minimizing the distortion. Assume comfortable stable position that allows you to sweep the upper body from left to right smoothly. It is a good idea to lean back a tad. This way, the camera is little bit closer towards the center of rotation which at least remotely mimics the nodal head. If there are some major foreground objects in the scene and you worry about parallax, there is one technique I found might help out a little. You can do thumbs up with your left hand and place the bottom of the lens on your thumb. This will be your pivot point for camera panning. This is not accurate but much better than sweeping in the waist as nodal point of any lens will be placed somewhere on the barrel of the lens rather than camera body. We will pan the camera on the thumb while keeping the supporting hand as stable as possible. For this to work your thumb shouldn't change position. This technique might feel little awkward, but with little practice it is doable. With extreme wide panoramic movement it might not work though. Most of the time the waist sweep is sufficient enough. Also this technique is better to do using live view rather than viewfinder.
Start to shoot from left side an make your way all the way to the right. If you have important objects far left or right make sure you give it enough room for later cropping. Every subsequent image should overlap previous one by 20%-30%. This is to give the software enough information to stitch the two together. If your camera supports grid display (like rule of thirds grid) this can greatly help you to visualize where the edges of overlap should fall. It is also very important to keep the sweeping motion and camera horizontal. If you want to do a big panorama you can also shoot multiple rows. Just remember that subsequent rows have to overlap with previous one by 20%-30% too.
For better results it is good idea to shoot the panoramas several times as you might not get it right first time. You can shoot a blank picture with lens cap on or just cover the lens with your hand between versions. This is a good visual reference for later and it makes it easier to separate the sequences.
Congratulations. You shot your first panorama sequence and I bet you are eager to get home and stitch those images together. As you can see there is nothing much to it. Most important thing is to set everything to manual and the shoot with consistent sweep in the waist with 20-30 % image overlap and you should be good. I use this technique often and you can see from these images or from gallery it gives acceptable results. In the next part I'll be addressing the stitching process in Photoshop. Stay tuned.